Wednesday, December 29, 2004

On the Making of Cheap Political Points: A Master Class 

Via Talking Points Memo:
President's latest response to the tsunami tragedy: badmouth Bill Clinton.

From the Post ...

Earlier yesterday, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president was confident he could monitor events effectively without returning to Washington or making public statements in Crawford, where he spent part of the day clearing brush and bicycling. Explaining the about-face, a White House official said: "The president wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts. He didn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.' "

Many Bush aides believe Clinton was too quick to head for the cameras to hold forth on tragedies with his trademark empathy. "Actions speak louder than words," a top Bush aide said, describing the president's view of his appropriate role.

Actions speak louder than words? Actions?
For those of you who want links with your moral outrage, here's one from the New York Times. The article explains that the Bush administration required public shaming (a UN official accused the US of being "stingy") before it would pledge aid at levels around those pledged by Japan and the UK.

Al-Jazeera, predictably, is attempting to make anti-American hay with this story (but oddly seems to be giving France, whose pledged aid so far is only 100,000 Euros (!), a pass).

Tsunami Relief 

Via the Head Heeb and his commenters, a list of ways to donate to relief efforts.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Saint Nick or Old Nick? 

In the mood for some holiday cheer? Check out these photographs of children terrified by Santa Claus [link via MetaFilter].

I don't have a picture of this, but when my brother Ben was a very little kid, Ayatollah Khomeini was regularly on the news. My brother would point at the TV and ask "Who dat?" to which my parents would respond, "That's a bad man."

That December, on a trip to the mall, Ben delighted me and mortified my mother by pointing at the mall Santa, with his long grey beard and unusual headwear, and shrieking "Bad man! Bad man!" Good times.

It's No "Carnivore," But Still... 

The New York Attorney General is looking into the possibility that the ACLU has violated its own members' privacy rights:
The American Civil Liberties Union is using sophisticated technology to collect a wide variety of information about its members and donors in a fund-raising effort that has ignited a bitter debate over its leaders' commitment to privacy rights.

Some board members say the extensive data collection makes a mockery of the organization's frequent criticism of banks, corporations and government agencies for their practice of accumulating data on people for marketing and other purposes.

Daniel S. Lowman, vice president for analytical services at Grenzebach Glier & Associates, the data firm hired by the A.C.L.U., said the software the organization is using, Prospect Explorer, combs a broad range of publicly available data to compile a file with information like an individual's wealth, holdings in public corporations, other assets and philanthropic interests.

The issue has attracted the attention of the New York attorney general, who is looking into whether the group violated its promises to protect the privacy of its donors and members.

"It is part of the A.C.L.U.'s mandate, part of its mission, to protect consumer privacy," said Wendy Kaminer, a writer and A.C.L.U. board member. "It goes against A.C.L.U. values to engage in data-mining on people without informing them. It's not illegal, but it is a violation of our values. It is hypocrisy."

The organization has been shaken by infighting since May, when the board learned that Anthony D. Romero, its executive director, had registered the A.C.L.U. for a federal charity drive that required it to certify that it would not knowingly employ people whose names were on government terrorism watch lists.

A day after The New York Times disclosed its participation in late July, the organization withdrew from the charity drive and has since filed a lawsuit with other charities to contest the watch list requirement.

The group's new data collection practices were implemented without the board's approval or knowledge, and were in violation of the A.C.L.U.'s privacy policy at the time, said Michael Meyers, vice president of the organization and a frequent and strident internal critic. Mr. Meyers said he learned about the new research by accident Nov. 7 in a meeting of the committee that is organizing the group's Biennial Conference in July.
Either this is the first stage in a brilliant counter-intuitive media strategy, or somebody just handed Rush Limbaugh enough fodder for a year's worth of unfunny jokes. I'd also like to wonder out loud how many organizations on the right have someone identifiable to the media as a "frequent and strident internal critic."

Darfur Reminder 

Horrible things are still happening in Sudan, and now it looks like they're getting worse. Those seeking to reaquaint themselves with the issue might start here.

Canada and Gay Marriage 

Even when you examine the electoral and partisan politics, Canada is way ahead of the US on gay marriage, as this fascinating New York Times article explains. I'd love to get my readers' thoughts on why.

[Note: "Bowling for Columbine" is a bad model for thinking about Canada/US distinctions, as are "Canadian Bacon," "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" and the collected works of Bryan Adams.]

Outsourcing the Judiciary 

Via the Head Heeb, I see that discussions about establishing a regional constitutional court for the Pacific Islands continue.

The idea, basically, is that small nations like Fiji, Samoa and the Solomon Islands simply do not have the resources to run constitutional courts like the US Supreme Court or the British Commonwealth's Privy Council. One solution is to outsource the job to a multinational organization. As the linked article points out, there's an additional complication: some of the countries in question have a common law heritage, while others derive their legal structures from French civil law. Presumably, countries jointly establishing any new court would want it to match their existing legal institutions as closely as possible, to avoid messy, expensive and confusing transitions, and this desire would be reflected in some pre-establishment bickering and complex negotiations over the court's ground rules. That we haven't seen even the establishment of a regular forum for such wheedling suggests that a new transnational court isn't likely to open for business any time soon.

A final point of interest (perhaps), is that to my limited knowledge, the only other such multinational constitutional court established in the post-colonial era is the European Court of Justice. If I recall correctly, that institution, much like the US Supreme Court, had to assert, under controversial circumstances, its right to pass judgment on the constitutionality of statute. I'd think it's a testament to the success of the ECJ that other regions are considering similar institutions.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Peace Promotion? 

The New York Times reports today that a long-time foreign policy goal of the US has finally come to fruition:
When Egypt, Israel and the United States signed a trade agreement this week, it represented the most tangible step in a monthlong thaw in chilly relations between the Egyptians and Israelis.

The agreement, signed Tuesday, allows for the duty-free import of certain Egyptian goods by American buyers as long as the items contain some Israeli input...

The mere fact that Egypt and Israel, with American backing, were finally able to hammer out a trade agreement that had first been broached in 1996 is telling. Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, who signed for the United States, issued a statement calling it "the most important economic agreement between Egypt and Israel in two decades."

Rashid Mohamed Rashid, the Egyptian foreign trade and industry minister, and Ehud Olmert, his Israeli counterpart, pointed out that the agreement was not merely about economics.

"It goes far beyond the economics and the business and the trade between the two countries," Mr. Olmert said. "This is another statement of two major forces in the Middle East: that they are looking forward toward greater cooperation."

The agreement stipulates that all Egyptian goods produced initially within seven specific "qualified industrial zones" will be exempt from American import tariffs as long as they contain at least 11.7 percent Israeli content. Given that much of the trade is expected to be in clothing, this would mean that the buttons or zippers or patterns would come from Israel, for example, while the actual manufacturing would depend on inexpensive Egyptian laborers.

The textile industry in Egypt employs a million people and accounts for more than one quarter of all industrial production, according to official figures. The United States takes half of Egypt's textile exports, or $470 million in 2003, which Mr. Rashid predicts could triple under the agreement. Jordan, the first to establish such zones, is expected to export $900 million to the United States this year, according to the American Embassy in Amman, up from virtually nothing five years ago.

Still, the pact was a tough public sell in Egypt, where bitterness and anger against the United States and Israel run deep. The professional unions in particular oppose any normalization with Israel, despite a 25-year-old peace treaty. Critics fret the agreement will not produce the anticipated job bonanza and will give Israel undue influence over some Egyptian exports.

The prevailing sentiment was that the agreement was yet another attempt by the United States to make Israel more palatable to the Arab world. Economic issues here often come secondary to the emotional desire to see some sort of overall settlement that will return occupied lands, particularly the holy mosque in Jerusalem, and find some solution for millions of Palestinian refugees stuck for generations in camps.

"I think the United States often reverts to very complicated methods to avoid facing the essential problems," said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University.

To overcome the opposition, Mr. Rashid underscored the idea that the agreement would bring economic benefits, including increasing exports to the United States and desperately needed job growth. Indeed, factory workers outside the designated zones demonstrated to be included out of fear their jobs were in jeopardy.

The expiration of a longstanding international quota system for textiles on Jan. 1 is likely to set off worldwide price competition for clothes, so getting Egyptian exports into the huge American market duty-free will protect jobs here, Mr. Rashid noted
Why has the US invested so much time and energy on this issue? I suspect the answer stems from the idea of "Commercial Liberalism," which is a fancy academic term for the idea that increased economic interactions between two countries reduces the likelihood that they will go to war.

Great! I think we'd all agree that reducing the likelihood of another Egypt-Israel war is an unalloyed good thing. So we should regard the new trade agreement as a step in the right direction. Right?

Well, yes and no. There are a couple of problems with this analysis. [Warning: the following analysis contains references to papers unavailable online.]

First, in general terms, political scientists aren't perfectly certain that increased trade always means less conflict. One group of papers, typified by Oneal, Russett and Berbaum's 2003 article in International Studies Quarterly, points out that for any two countries, holding all else constant, increasing trade between them as a share of GDP reduces the likelihood they'll go to war. That suggests that the new trade agreement represents a small but real improvement in the chances for sustained mideast peace.

Another group of papers, typified by Katherine Barbieri's work, shows that for any two countries, holding all else constant, increasing the bilateral proportion of the countries' total trade activities actually leads to a greater chance of conflict. To the extent that we expect Egypt-Israel trade to expand in proportion to Egypt and Israel's total trade as a result of the agreement, then, maybe the new treaty isn't such a good thing.

A recent paper by Erik Garzke and Quan Li does a good job of explaining the distinction made above, and points out a number of other holes in our knowledge of the links between trade and conflict, including the fact that we don't have a good theoretical or empirical understanding of whether imports and exports work differently to influence conflict likelihood, an issue that has obvious application when looking at the structure of the Israel-USA-Egypt agreement.

A second point, raised obliquely by the newly-ABD Paul at Explananda, is that while increasing bilateral trade probably does decrease the chance of conflict, democratization appears to do a better job of doing so. To the extent that this new agreement was forged at the cost of diplomatic efforts to improve Egypt's, uh, democracy problems, it's probably a pretty inefficient use of US influence. I'd also point out that creating a system whereby immense political pressure is exerted on firms to use particular suppliers isn't all that consonant with the idea of "free trade."

Ultimately, though, I'm not ready to decry the new agreement. Frankly, any progress, no matter how inefficient, in improving government-to-government (and, probably, plutocrat-to-plutocrat) relations in the region has to be included in the "positives" column.

President Clinton's Legacy 

Kash at Angry Bear has made an interesting observation: the Business Roundtable, a group generally identified with Republicans, has started a new campaign to make the case for free trade. No great surprise there. There is a noteworthy aspect to the Roundtable's ad, though: it features a great big image of President Clinton's smiling mug, and sings praises of his trade policy victories.

What's going on here? I suspect that the campaign is aimed at centrist Democrats like me, whom CEOs may fear are abandoning their principled support of free trade in their eagerness to hand Republicans political defeats. Maybe I'm just being an egomaniac, though. Kash comes up with a number of other plausible explanations in his post, including the possibility that this is a warning to the White House that its recent protectionist moves are costing Bush political support with a key constituency. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Managing Your Monkey Problem 

According to my referrer logs, some lucky Googler found his way to the Bonassus while searching for "how to stop monkey menace." While my blog has generally offered more in the way of monkey-menace documenting than monkey-menace solutions, this article from the Chandigarh Newsline provides some hints at managing, if not stopping, the lower-primate threat:
* Do not make direct eye contact with monkeys.
* Never cross the path between a monkey and its infant.
* While passing through a group of monkeys, be light-footed. Running disturbs the serenity of their environment and agitates them.
* Do not go near a wounded or dead monkey.
* Food must not be available to monkeys near your house.
* If a monkey collides with your vehicle, do not stop. The monkey group could attack you in retaliation.
* If a monkey makes a ‘kho-kho’ noise, do not get scared as normally, it is a bluff. Just walk away calmly.
* To make monkeys leave your garden, keep hitting the ground with a stick.
* Presence of big dogs like Doberman or bigger primates like langurs will make monkeys leave the premises.
* Loud, heavy noise, bursting of crackers or their sound track will also make monkeys leave.
* Monkeys are scared of snakes. So, real looking, wriggling plastic snakes also do the trick.
Sage words. Go buy a plastic snake before your next visit to the supermarket.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Red Meat for Secularists. 

I've been too busy to post lately. I've also been working on my little self-education project about Christian tropes and memes relevant to economic policy.

Other Democratic blogs, however, are taking a different approach, continuing the "mock religious wackos" trend. If you're lookin' to get your blood pressure raised, here are some suggestions:

* Pandagon has been documenting a series of Religious Right outrages. I'm too distracted to get my hackles too far up, but maybe you're not.

* Kos has found a little slice of scripture that doesn't accord too well with the administration's current military personnel policies. As articles like this one make clear, however, this line of reasoning, which reduces to "The Bible says bats are birds, ergo your whole worldview is ridiculous," probably won't alter the outcome of policy battles.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Funds and Fundamentalists 

Digby has a thought-provoking (if perhaps a tad overblown) post up on a possible left response to the Christian Right. After reviewing an evolutionary-historical unified theory of fundamentalism (which has the usual "just-so story" quality of the genre), Digby suggests that those on the left side of the political spectrum should also be playing in-group/out-group games, using the word "fundamentalist" to link Bin Laden and Falwell.

In a related vein, I've been thinking more about ways to drive wedges between the Christian Right and the Economic Right. The more Republican Wall Streeters I talk to, the more achievable I think this goal is. I just don't know exactly how it can be done.

One germ of an idea that occurred to me over the weekend was the question of usury. Let me explain. My extremely limited knowledge of the subject's history has the following elements:

The Hebrew Bible, like many religious scriptures, condemns usury under specific circumstances.

This scriptural fact at one point led the Catholic Church to forbid all forms of money-lending at interest.

At some point these rules were relaxed.

Here's my question: do any contemporary Christian groups or leaders talk about usury? To the extent that scripture directly condemns the practice, I'd think that it should be very easy for left-leaning economic populists to get Christianity-driven voters to side with them against mean-and-scary banks. I'd also think one could craft a Christianity/scripture-driven message with lots of personal anecdotes ("They took the farm, they took my car, they took my small paper-supply corporation.") really easily here.

Obviously, Creflo Dollar and other "prosperity theologians" must have some stock response allowing them to swat away the issue, but it may well be possible to out-argue them here. I'd love to know more about the subject. If any Bonassus readers can point me in the general direction of a good article,I'd be much obliged.

A final note: much care is needed on this issue. Not only are there historical links to anti-semitism in the usury question, but left-leaning populism doesn't necessarily lead to good public policy (to put it mildly). I'm thinking here in terms of electoral politics, not policymaking.

UPDATE: Links to some good source material (and another wedge issue idea) in the comments, courtesy of jds.

UPDATE 2: So, after some communication with a faculty member from a Baptist University (the author of a book on the history of the usury prohibition in Protestant thought), I've come to a conclusion: this wasn't actually a good idea. Apparently, usury is just a dead issue except at the fringe. As I'll explain in my next post, simply finding a juicy quote in the Bible isn't sufficient for appealing to Christians who might be willing to vote with Democrats against other members of the GOP coalition.

Problems Fixed? 

A number of readers have e-mailed me (or in the case of my parents, phoned me) to let me know that the blog hasn't been rendering properly. After monkeying a bit with the template, I failed to resolve the problem. Blogspot.com seems to have taken care of things overnight, though.

If the blog still looks screwy to you, please let me know.

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